Preparedness & Recovery

How Atlanta Took Collaboration to the Next Level With Evacuation Plan

Regional evacuation plan guides elected officials, emergency managers and others during a crisis.

by Jeff Hescock / September 10, 2009
Camilla, GA, February 14, 2000 -- A resident salvages what he can of his home ravaged by a tornado. Liz Roll/ FEMA News Photo

Ordering the evacuation of residents during a disaster can be one of the most formidable decisions a leader is faced with during an emergency of any size, as displacing citizens can have a profound impact on their lives. Large-scale evacuations can potentially affect hundreds of thousands of individuals. In addition to the impact on the general public, an emergency requiring widespread evacuation generally involves numerous jurisdictions moving individuals from an affected area to a host area, and thus requires meticulous coordination.

The metropolitan Atlanta region, vulnerable to both natural and man-made disasters, has a history of successful, multijurisdictional collaboration on a wide range of emergency preparedness issues, and took that collaboration a step further with its Regional Evacuation Coordination Plan (RECP).

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who was instrumental in developing the plan, said, “Atlanta is the economic engine of the region, home to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, several Fortune 500 companies, and a population of nearly 500,000, which makes it highly vulnerable. Having a coordinated regional emergency evacuation plan is critical as the city and the region work to enhance their ability to effectively respond to human-caused and natural disasters.”


The Beginning

In April 2008, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency collectively sought to develop a regional evacuation plan that would guide elected officials, emergency managers and other supporting organizations from the 10 contiguous counties in the metropolitan Atlanta region in coordinating a safe and effective regional evacuation. The RECP, which would be built on existing state and local emergency operations and coordination processes, would not supersede any existing emergency operations plan. Rather, it would supplement the all-hazards concept of operations described in the GEMA Emergency Operations Plan and each of the 10 counties’ emergency operations plans.

At the project’s inception, a Planning Advisory Committee was formed, comprised of emergency managers from all 10 counties in the metropolitan Atlanta region — Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale — as well as the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Urban Area Security Initiative, the city of Atlanta and GEMA. The Planning Advisory Committee concluded that a sound RECP would provide sufficient answers to the following three questions:

  • Can we evacuate the Atlanta region?
  • Where will people go?
  • What is the regional coordination process to evacuate?

Plan Construction: A Three-Phase Approach

To answer these pressing questions, development of the RECP followed a three-phased approach: a workshop, a series of planning analyses, and plan development. The first two phases were critical to creating an informed, executable plan.

Phase one featured an evacuation workshop to bring together the most critical stakeholders to the creation and implementation of the RECP. The workshop was intended to provide an opportunity for these stakeholders to discuss roles and responsibilities in preparation and response during an evacuation; brainstorm about critical success factors for an effective evacuation; discover existing capabilities and resources; determine shortfalls in capabilities and resources; and build consensus for developing an executable plan. The workshop involved more than 80 participants from more than 50 organizations, including officials from the emergency management, transportation, special needs, utilities, public safety and communication sectors. During the workshop, these stakeholders and local experts exchanged ideas, advice and experiences, which served as the foundation for the RECP.

Phase two included the planning analysis, which was the most complex phase of the project. Analyses were conducted in seven areas of concern, and the results served as the planning assumptions on which the overall RECP was built. The analyses were as follows:

  • The planning analysis consisted of the review of existing plans and procedures to identify current planning assumptions, emergency operations procedures and capabilities as they relate to evacuation.
  • The hazard analysis consisted of the review of existing hazard identification and risk assessments, including local hazard mitigation plans to identify the likely scenarios or hazards that may necessitate an evacuation response.
  • The vulnerability analysis identified the areas, populations, and critical facilities and infrastructure with vulnerabilities to identified hazards.
  • The behavioral analysis included the completion of a survey with a representative portion of the general population to ascertain the potential response and evacuation needs of the Atlanta metropolitan residents. The survey also captured information regarding the number of individuals requiring assistance and the number of individuals that would require shelter.
  • The evacuation zone analysis identified evacuation zones based on transportation corridors.
  • The transportation analysis evaluated current roadway networks, including capacity, modes of transportation and traffic management strategies to identify potential clearance times.
  • The shelter analysis analyzed specific county and regional host shelter capabilities including persons with special needs requirements for sheltering and transportation.

The third phase, the plan development phase, combined the results of the phase two planning analyses to create an executable Atlanta regional evacuation coordination plan. Throughout the entire RECP development process, stakeholders from numerous areas including county, city, state, federal, private and nonprofit organizations were interviewed and consulted on their roles, responsibilities and capabilities to assist with an evacuation.


Can We Evacuate the Atlanta Region?

The simple answer to this question is “yes.” However, because the incident most likely to necessitate an evacuation is one with little or no forewarning and an indeterminate impact location, it was vital that the RECP consider four distinctly different evacuation scenarios:

  • regional evacuation requiring the evacuation of the entire population in the region;
  • area evacuation requiring the evacuation of specific zones or areas;
  • point evacuation requiring the evacuation of a specific area that crosses jurisdictional boundaries; and
  • central business district evacuation requiring the evacuation of the central business district.

Each of these evacuation scenarios focuses on distinct at-risk populations and is heavily influenced by the results of the behavioral analysis from phase two, which assessed how residents of the region would respond to an evacuation order.


Where Will People Go?

One of the key objectives of the Atlanta RECP was to gain a deeper understanding of how residents will react to an evacuation and what their needs might be. Using a phone survey system, more than 16,000 area households were called and asked to participate in a 13-question survey on emergency evacuations. The households surveyed were distributed throughout the region in proportion to the size of the county’s population. Each household was asked to place themselves in a hypothetical evacuation scenario and asked:

  • the number of individuals in the household;
  • what types of assistance they would need;
  • where they would seek shelter;
  • what type of transportation they would use; and
  • what they would do with household pets, if applicable.

The results of the RECP survey will help elected officials and emergency managers make better response and recovery decisions and assist emergency management planners in the Atlanta region with a more realistic understanding of the needs of an evacuating population, and the resources required to support them.

What is the Regional Coordination Process to Evacuate?

The decision to evacuate an area is not one to be taken lightly. There are significant impacts on public safety, public perception and the economy. Moreover, it’s widely acknowledged that chief elected officials and emergency management directors don’t have time to memorize or even thumb through a 200-page plan in the midst of a serious crisis.

With that in mind, the entire Atlanta RECP was summarized into the first four pages of the document. This important four-page section contains a first-hour checklist and an evacuation process flow chart, and can be pulled out as stand-alone document. The first-hour checklist summarizes the key activities and tasks that chief elected officials, emergency managers and other decision-makers must be aware of to effectively respond to an emergency incident. The evacuation process flow chart outlines the general coordination process during an emergency as well as the plans and procedures that must be followed during each step. The concept of coordination described in the chart works hand-in-hand with the concept of operations described in the GEMA Emergency Operations Plan and county emergency plans.

Plan Organization

The RECP was organized into three sections: base plan, evacuation planning analysis and county-specific information.

  • The base plan provides the overall framework for how the 10 counties, Atlanta, Georgia and other stakeholders will coordinate and communicate evacuation decisions and measures. The base plan identifies evacuation zones and routes and estimated clearance times. It also contains the results of the evacuation behavioral analysis, which estimates the percentage of the population that will evacuate when directed, the required level of transportation assistance (e.g., general assistance, evacuating with pets, medical special needs, etc.) and the number of residents who may seek refuge at an American Red Cross shelter.
  • The evacuation planning analysis details the results of the hazard vulnerability analysis, the evacuation zone analysis, the behavioral analysis, the transportation analysis and the shelter analysis.
  • The county-specific information section presents the county-level results of each of the analyses completed and detailed in the evacuation planning analysis section. This section of the RECP is intended to serve as a standalone document that may be excerpted and appended to a county Emergency Operations Plan.

A National Model for Regional Planning

As the regional planning and intergovernmental coordination agency for the 10-county area, the Atlanta Regional Commission is focused on unifying the region's collective resources to prepare it for a safe and prosperous future. In keeping with its mission to catalyze regional progress, the commission skillfully coordinated the planning effort between emergency managers from the 10 counties, GEMA and key community, faith-based, private and transportation-related organizations during this project. The resulting Atlanta RECP — which reflects the region’s commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of its citizens — serves as a national best-practice model for regional collaboration and planning.

Jeff Hescock is a senior consultant with Beck Disaster Recovery, Inc.,, and was the project manager on the Atlanta Regional Evacuation Planning Project. He can be reached at

[Photo courtesy of Liz Roll/ FEMA News Photo.]